It was about eight months ago when Paul Krugman, who hasn’t always been President Obama’s biggest fan, said what many in the political establishment would not. “Obama has emerged,” Krugman wrote, “as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.”
To be sure, it is a little early to start reflecting on the Obama’s place in history, since his presidency still has over a year to go, during which time much can happen. But after last week – the Affordable Care Act’s success at the Supreme Court, the breakthrough on marriage equality, the advances of the administration’s trade agenda, the breathtaking eulogy in Charleston – there’s been renewed talk, not just about Obama’s rejuvenated presidency, but also about his qualifications for the pantheon of American leaders of historic consequence.
My msnbc colleague Benjy Sarlin published a thoughtful piece on the Obama legacy over the weekend.
“At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story,” Obama told the New Yorker’s David Remnick in one interview. “We just try to get our paragraph right.”Now consider what the paragraph version of Obama’s presidency looks like as of now, with the key terms for next week’s social studies midterm highlighted in bold.“The first black president, President Obama took office amid the Great Recession, stabilized the economy with a stimulus and auto bailout, passed universal health care and Wall Street reform over fierce opposition, and implemented a suite of regulations aimed at combatting climate change. The first president to embrace marriage equality, he presided over the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing it nationwide.”
I think Sarlin’s right on both counts. First, that’s a pretty impressive paragraph that suggets Obama will be remembered as a great and important president.
Second, it’s also true that when it comes to history, presidencies tend to lose their rough edges – we look past day-to-day, granular developments as they get further away – and leaders are remembered based on their most notable achievements.
White House scandals can, of course, detract from those accomplishments – see Iran/Contra and Watergate, for example – but as we discussed a few weeks ago, even conservatives tend to concede, “President Obama has run an amazingly scandal-free administration, not only he himself, but the people around him. He’s chosen people who have been pretty scandal-free.”
Vox’s Dylan Matthews agreed last week that “there’s no longer any doubt: Barack Obama is one of the most consequential presidents in American history – and he will be a particularly towering figure in the history of American progressivism.”
When you consider the [ACA] in the context of 100 years of progressive activism, and in the grand scheme of American history, it starts to look less like a moderate reform and more like an epochal achievement, on the order of FDR’s passage of Social Security, or LBJ’s Great Society programs. It is, to quote Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol, “a century-defining accomplishment in the last industrial democracy to resist using national government to ensure access to health coverage for most citizens.” FDR failed, Truman failed, Nixon failed, Carter failed, Clinton failed – and Obama succeeded. He filled in the one big remaining gap in the American welfare state when all his forerunners couldn’t.And of course, the Affordable Care Act was hardly Obama’s only accomplishment. He passed a stimulus bill that included major reforms to the nation’s education system, big spending on clean energy, and significant expansions of anti-poverty programs. He shepherded through the Dodd-Frank Act, the first significant crackdown on Wall Street’s power in a generation, which has been far more successful than commonly acknowledged.
Before anyone sends me angry emails, I realize the list keeps going (student-loan overhaul, a breakthrough with Cuba, ending Syria’s chemical-weapons program without firing a shot, killing Osama bin Laden, etc.). What’s more, it’s also true that additional success are still possible – probably not with Congress, which has been largely hopeless since January 2011, but possibly in foreign policy.
Krugman added last week that he wrote his praise of the president last fall, his take was “very much at odds with the preferred pundit narrative, according to which Obama was teetering on the edge of a failed presidency…. But suddenly it seems as if conventional wisdom is coming around.”
I’d expect many more analyses along these lines in the months and years to come.